Children’s Mental Health: Understanding an Ongoing Public Health Concern

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A new report on children’s mental health used data from different sources to describe mental health and mental disorders in children during 2013–2019. Poor mental health among children continues to be a substantial public health concern. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety among children of all ages, and symptoms related to depression among adolescents, are the most common concerns.  More information on positive indicators of mental health such as emotional well-being and resilience is needed to truly understand children’s mental health.

Read the report.

Children’s mental health

Mental health is an important part of overall health and well-being. Being mentally healthy in childhood means reaching developmental and emotional milestones, and learning healthy social skills and how to cope and stay resilient when there are problems. Children’s mental health is strengthened by supportive relationships and environments and can be put at risk by stress and negative experiences. Social determinants of health, meaning the conditions in the places where children live, learn, and play, can add stress and have a negative effect on mental health.

Struggling with emotions and behavior is a normal part of growing up, and mental health can get better or worse over time. For some children, challenges with mental health can mean having symptoms and risk behaviors that persist or are severe enough to meet criteria for diagnosed disorders.

Facts about children’s mental health from 2013–2019

Researchers looked at 9 different data sources from different years, ranging from 2013 to 2019. Some of the main findings were:

  • During this period, the most common disorders diagnosed among U.S. children aged 3–17 years were ADHD and anxiety problems, each affecting more than 1 in 11 children:
    • ADHD 9.8%
    • Anxiety 9.4%
  • Depression and suicide were a risk for older children and teens:
    • Among adolescents aged 12–17 years, 1 in 5 (20.9%) had ever experienced a major depressive episode.
    • Among high school students in 2019, more than 1 in 3 (36.7%) reported feeling sad or hopeless, and nearly 1 in 5 (18.8%) seriously considered attempting suicide.
    • About 7 in 100,000 children aged 10–19 years died by suicide in 2018 and 2019.
  • Mental disorders can begin in early childhood and affect children across a range of sociodemographic characteristics. Some populations are more affected due to social determinants of health such as poverty, access to education, and geographic area, resulting in health inequities.

More information is needed about children’s mental health

This report is a collaboration of the CDC with other federal agencies including the Health Resources and Services Administrationexternal icon, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,external icon and the National Institute of Mental Healthexternal icon. It represents an update to the first ever cross-agency children’s mental health surveillance report in 2013.

Gathering accurate information about children’s mental health and mental disorders can be a challenge. These 9 different data sources do not currently monitor the full range of mental health and well-being indicators among children and adolescents. Federal agencies are working to expand current systems to include a broader range of disorders as well as indicators of good mental health, such as emotional well-being and resilience. In addition, federal agencies are working to build capacity in state, tribal, local, and territorial systems to collect, analyze, and use data to promote and protect children’s mental health.

What we can do to get a more complete understanding of children’s mental health in the United States:

  • Researchers can identify the best indicators of mental health.
  • Schools can consider collecting and using children’s mental health indicators to develop supportive policies, implement prevention and intervention programs, and improve student health.
  • Healthcare providers can consider collecting and using mental health indicators to monitor and support healthy child development and inform decisions about treatment and referrals.
  • Decision makers can support the identification or creation of additional sources for data collection to ensure that policies and programs are directed to populations who are most vulnerable.
  • Communities and the public can find out about state/local efforts to collect and use data, and become more informed about children’s mental health.

A comprehensive approach to children’s mental health includes policies, programs, and practices to promote and protect children’s mental health even before a child would qualify for a diagnosis.

What You Can Do

  • Parents: You know your child best. Talk to your child’s health care professional if you have concerns about the way your child behaves at home, in school, or with friends.
  • Health care professionals: Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment based on updated guidelines is very important. There are resources available to help diagnose and treat children’s mental disorders.
  • Teachers/School Administrators: Early identification is important, so that children can get the help they need. Work with families and health care professionals if you have concerns about the mental health of a child in your school.

Data sources for the report

  1. Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDM)
  2. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)
  3. National Health Interview Survey (NHIS)
  4. National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH)external icon
  5. National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)external icon
  6. National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS)
  7. National Vital Statistics System (NVSS)
  8. School-Associated Violent Death Surveillance System (SAVD-SS)
  9. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS)

Reference

Bitsko RH, Claussen AH, Lichtstein J, Black LJ, Everett Jones S, Danielson MD, Hoenig JM, Davis Jack SP, Brody DJ, Gyawali S, Maenner MM, Warner M, Holland KM, Perou R, Crosby AE, Blumberg SJ, Avenevoli S, Kaminski JW, Ghandour RM. Surveillance of Children’s Mental Health – United States, 2013 – 2019 MMWR, 2022 / 71(Suppl-2);1–42. [Read article]